Mass. State Police Head: Go After Heroin Dealers For Overdose Deaths

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With heroin overdose deaths skyrocketing in Massachusetts, the head of the state police is calling for authorities to take a relatively new step to help stem the crisis: go after dealers who supplied the heroin on charges of manslaughter.

Col. Timothy Alben made the statement on Twitter Tuesday morning, linking to a report of a fatal heroin overdose in Ludlow in which the alleged dealer was charged with distribution of drugs, but at this point not with the death.

In 2013, the most recent year for which the state Department of Public Health has released numbers, 978 people died of opioid overdoses in Massachusetts — a 46 percent jump over the year before.*

In the month of December 2014, Alben said his investigators responded to 114 deaths suspected of being opioid overdoses, though the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner hasn't confirmed the cause of death in each of those cases yet. For the month of March to date, Alben says troopers have investigated 54 suspected opioid-related deaths. (The State Police figures do not include the cities of Boston, Worcester and Springfield, where local police handle the cases.)

"When we can identify dealers who are selling this poison to individuals that results in deaths, and if we can sort of assemble the appropriate evidence to sustain an indictment or a charge of manslaughter, for example, that should be a component of the strategy to eliminate this," Alben told WBUR.

"What we've got here are drug dealers that are mixing these products in the most inhospitable places you can imagine," Alben said. "There's absolutely no control over any of this. The things that are intermingled with heroin even can be lethal."

Alben acknowledged such prosecutions would be difficult given the complexities of tracing the drug that actually caused the death to a specific dealer, and determining whether the person who sold the heroin mixed it as well.

"Just because it's difficult or it's challenging doesn't mean we shouldn't do it," Alben said, adding that district attorneys in some Massachusetts counties have started pursuing such cases against heroin dealers in isolated circumstances.

Listen to our full conversation with Col. Alben above.

*Correction: An earlier version of this story reported an outdated figure for the number of opioid overdose deaths in Massachusetts in 2013. There were 978 opioid overdoses in 2013, not 908.

This article was originally published on March 24, 2015.

This segment aired on March 24, 2015.

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Deborah Becker Host/Reporter
Deborah Becker is a senior correspondent and host at WBUR. Her reporting focuses on mental health, criminal justice and education.


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Lynn Jolicoeur Producer/Reporter
Lynn Jolicoeur is the field producer for WBUR's All Things Considered. She also reports for the station's various local news broadcasts.



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